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Gratitude gets a lot of play in happiness and mindfulness circles. However, it doesn’t necessarily get its due in discussions of productivity and creativity. Instead, the world of productivity can be quite ego focused, whether we subscribe to the trendy practices of the “quantified self” or just plain old self-help.
But when we feel down about our work, whether facing writer’s block, self-doubt, a slump in productivity or just the mid-week blahs, positive thinking about ourselves can feel tough to muster. Remember Saturday Night Live’s “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me”? This kind of self-talk can feel phony in the face of serious self-doubt.
Moreover, for entrepreneurs and others who work in competitive or individualistic fields, focusing on the self may only perpetuate problematic cycles of thinking. While individualism and self-assessment are a crucial part of achievement, sometimes the very drive and competitiveness that lead people to achieve can also lead to a vicious cycle of self-flagellation when these same high-performing individuals get stuck on work projects. For example, in an article reflecting on life in the competitive field of orthopedic surgery, Dr. John Kelly notes, “Working in a hypercompetitive field can lead to egocentric thinking in which career goals trump all else.” As a result, happiness, relationships and psychological well-being may suffer, sometimes leading to burnout and, ironically, poorer professional performance over a lifetime. For ego-driven individuals, focusing on the self when facing a creative rut may result in more of the same.
Related: 4 Ways to Be More Positive
What holds out more promise? A different kind of positive thinking that includes being thankful for people and experiences outside the self. The acknowledgments sections of best-sellers and gratitude-filled speeches at awards shows such as the Oscars are only the most spectacular reminders of the fact that success is rarely a solitary journey. Additionally, recent research suggests the value of gratitude for self-improvement and the helpfulness of this emotion in re-establishing a more positive outlook and change. In his article on living a better life, Dr. Kelly goes on to suggest the importance of cultivating gratitude for high performers who might otherwise get stuck in an egocentric cycle of high highs and low lows. Psychologists out of the University of California Riverside corroborate this in a study that shows us gratitude does more than make us feel good. Beyond being pleasant and leading to increased happiness and feelings of social support, the researchers note that gratitude inspires self-improvement in order to honor those who have helped us along the way. In other words, gratitude is something of a miracle emotion: It makes us happy, makes those around us happy and helps us develop as individuals.
When we’re stuck in our work, then, breaking away from thinking about ourselves—our failures as well as our dreams—and thinking about those who have helped us along the way can be a way to refresh our interest in our projects and tackle them with new enthusiasm.
A few ways to cultivate this kind of rut-busting gratitude include:
1. Keep a morning and evening gratitude journal.
Lots of people have gotten on the gratitude journal bandwagon. Most frequently, this involves evening reflection on what has gone well throughout the day. While this end-of-day gratitude practice is a terrific way to close out the day and may be a way to keep us looking for things to be grateful for throughout the day, it’s also worth introducing a morning gratitude practice. Accompanying your morning cup of coffee with a list of three things to be grateful for can energize your work for the rest of the day, or imbue you with the sense that it’s a privilege to undertake your project. For example, you might note that you are grateful to the mentor who has helped take your work forward, or that you have two hours for sustained work, or that you are lucky enough to work in a space with creative and positive people.
2. Write thank you notes.
When you’re feeling sluggish about what you are working on, take a second to remember all of the people whose work and expertise got you to where you are today. Remembering that your current work reflects on the love, attention and expertise of others may inspire new, positive feelings of responsibility in your work. Take a moment to reach out to a mentor, teacher or other important person in your life and tell them how much they have meant to you and the way their influence is at play in your current work life.
3. Draft your acknowledgements section.
Because most of us aren’t famous authors or actors, we won’t ever get to give a big speech of gratitude or write a dedication page. However, it can still be useful to take a break from the project that’s got you down to draft an “acknowledgements” section, even if it never sees the light of day. In addition to reminding us of the many people we admire who have helped us along the way, acknowledgements sections often include insight into what inspired us to begin the project along the way, whether in the form of a thank you to friends whose conversation sparked the idea, or even a famous scientist we don’t know whose work opened the door to the problem we’re now trying to solve.
Katherine Fusco is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches film, theory, and American literature. She is the author of Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative and Modernity (Routledge) and Kelly Reichardt (University of Illinois). Currently, Katherine is working on a book about stardom and questions of identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Katherine has appeared in The Atlantic, Dilettante Army, Harpers Bazaar, Headspace, OZY and Salmagundi; you can find her blog on motherhood and creativity at CreateLikeAMother.blog.